Any firm that wants to succeed needs a marketing plan. Without one, an organization has no systematic approach for promoting itself to potential clients. The alternative is a haphazard, start-and-stop, inefficient effort that wastes time and money — two valuable resources no professional services firm can afford to squander.
However, the marketing planning process that works well for consumer products, industrial goods, or not-for-profits is not well suited for professional services. This is a lesson we have learned after many years of working across these fields.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to put together an effective marketing plan specifically for professional services firms like yours.
Of course, there’s more to a marketing plan than a list of ideas to promote your firm. You need to follow a specific process — one that produces a plan custom-tailored to your needs.
Before we get into that process, however, let’s clarify a few key marketing planning concepts.
Marketing Planning Process Defined
A marketing planning process is a systematic approach to developing marketing goals, strategies, and implementation tactics. It may be adapted to a wide variety of situations, from the launch of a new firm or practice area to the repositioning of an existing firm — even the routine planning of new business development activities.
Depending on your specific situation, certain phases of the process may take on greater or lesser importance. For example, when launching a new practice area it’s prudent to focus on its strategic components. This is sometimes referred to as developing a go-to-market strategy.
When focusing on repositioning your firm in the marketplace, often called rebranding, you will most likely need to emphasize both strategic and tactical elements to increase the visibility of your new brand.
Once a year, most firms update their marketing plan or marketing budget, and they spend the majority of their time evaluating current performance and adjusting tactics. While they may take a cursory look at the bigger picture, few firms retool their entire firm strategy each year.
Importance of Marketing Planning
How important is marketing planning for professional services? Some would make the case that marketing planning, and indeed any marketing, is a waste of time and resources. They would argue that professional services marketing is all based on referrals and repeat business. In this view marketing is a non-essential activity, a kind of nice to have.
This view is often held by executives with long histories in professional services, some of which may be in senior management positions. The only problem with this view is that it is not consistent with the data. In other words, it is wrong.
There are two lines of research that support the importance of marketing planning. The first of these is research into the behavior of professional services buyers conducted by the Hinge Research Institute.
This research shows that while referrals remain important, their significance has been steadily declining for a number of years. This is especially true since the global pandemic has made remote interaction the norm. Further, the key selection criteria favors firms that demonstrate superior relevant expertise over those with a strong referral. And importantly, the visibility of professional services firms has waned. So from the perspective of your buyers, the marketing process is more important than ever before.
The second line of relevant research comes from our studies of the fastest growing and most profitable professional services firms. In this research series we ask the question ‘What do the fastest growing firms do differently than their slow growth peers?’
What we learned is that not actively tracking marketing results or that basing their plans on historical data from previous years are associated with slow growth and lower profitability. Conversely, firms that track marketing key performance indicators (KPIs) and return on investment (ROI) of their marketing spends are more likely to be high growth (20% or greater compound annual top line growth) and high profit (25% or greater profitability).
The importance of marketing planning clearly shows through. If you want to follow your prospective clients’ lead and enjoy superior growth and profitability, the marketing planning process is essential. Now let’s focus on the specific benefits of a systematic professional services marketing planning process.
Benefits of the Marketing Planning Process
It’s important to take a thoughtful, step-by-step approach to your marketing plan. Done right, it can yield a number of valuable benefits that can jumpstart success:
- It encourages you to revisit old habits and assumptions. In a changing world, you have to learn to adapt — doing things the way you’ve always done them is not a winning strategy. A good marketing plan should take you, to some degree, outside your comfort zone and question everything you’ve done to date and why you thought it would work. Just because you’ve “always done something that way” doesn’t mean it’s effective or even a good idea.
- It reduces risk by adding new facts. The process of developing a marketing plan forces you to reexamine your marketplace, your competition, your target audience, and your value proposition to prospects. This kind of focused research reduces risk because it compels you to evaluate your business model and marketing program before you commit time and money to them. According to our studies of professional services marketing, firms that conduct systematic research into their target audiences grow faster and are more profitable.
- It provides accountability. Marketing planning makes both your marketing and business development teams set specific targets and measure their progress toward them. Management is accountable for providing enough resources to ensure the marketing plan has a reasonable chance to succeed.
- It is proactive rather than reactive. Planning ahead puts you in control of your marketing so you can maximize its impact. However, it’s important to be agile enough to react to changing circumstances. Having well-documented plans makes it easier to change them.
- It can become a competitive advantage. High-growth firms use their marketing strategy as a differentiator. By giving some thought to what makes your firm unique, you should be able to develop compelling differentiators — one or more clear reasons to select your firm over an apparently similar one.
The 7-Step Marketing Planning Process
- Understand the business situation your firm is facing. The purpose of marketing is to enable a firm to achieve its business goals. If you do not start with a clear understanding of those goals and any constraints that limit your ability to achieve them, you will be unlikely to succeed.
Look closely at the factors that affect your standing in the marketplace:
- Has an influx of new competitors slowed your growth?
- Is price sensitivity squeezing the margins on your existing services?
- Are you competing in a commoditized market?
- Are you poised to lose key players to retirement?
These are just a few of the key business drivers of marketing strategy.
Often, you can use a SWOT analysis to organize and evaluate your business drivers. Within this framework, observations about the firm or practice are categorized as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, or threats. You want to do everything you can to root your planning process in reality. While that may seem obvious, many firms spend little time on their SWOT analysis, relying instead on personal beliefs and anecdotal experience.
There is a better way. Start conducting regular, systematic research into your marketplace. Firms that do this kind of research at least once a year grow faster and are more profitable.
Different types of research apply to different stages of the planning process. For example, opportunity research compares the viability of different markets or target audiences. Client or persona research helps you get a better understanding of your target clients and how they select a firm. When we assist clients with the planning process, we often combine several types of research into a comprehensive package we call brand research that can be applied throughout the planning process.
- Research and understand your target clients. It’s rare to meet practicing professionals who do not believe that they fully understand their clients, their needs, and their priorities. Sadly, they are almost always wrong about some key element of their clients’ thinking, decision-making, or real priorities and they rarely understand how clients choose new providers.
For example, you may realize that your clients value you as a trusted advisor. What you may miss, however, is that almost no potential client goes looking for a trusted advisor. Instead, they are almost always looking for someone to solve a specific business problem.
If you understand that key distinction — and build your marketing plan accordingly — you will win more new clients, and then evolve into their trusted advisor. Remember this every time you see a competitor position their firm as trusted advisors. They’ve got things backward.
When you are doing research, focus on your best, most desirable client segments. Which ones do you want more of? This will help you isolate which important benefits you derive from them and equip you to find more clients like them. It will also help you learn how your clients get information and search for new providers. This will help you in subsequent steps.
- Position your brand in the marketplace. Successful positioning rejects conformity. At its best, positioning elevates a brand above the fray so that people can’t help but take notice. The human brain instinctively looks for things that are different and unexpected. So a brand that stands in stark contrast to its competition will attract people’s attention and have a distinct advantage in the marketplace.
This starts with identifying what makes you different. These are called your differentiators, and they must pass three tests. Each must be:
- True— You can’t just make it up. You must be able to deliver upon your promise every day.
- Provable— Even if it is true, you must be able to prove it to a skeptical prospect.
- Relevant— If it is not important to a prospect during the firm selection process it will not help you win the new client.
It’s best to try for three to five good differentiators. If you have fewer than that, take heart. Sometimes one great differentiator may be enough.
Next, you must use your differentiator(s) to write a focused, easy-to-understand positioning statement. This is a short paragraph that summarizes what your firm does, who it does it for, and why clients choose you over competitors. It positions you in the competitive market space and becomes the DNA of your brand.
Each of your audiences (e.g., potential clients, referral sources, potential employees) is interested in different aspects of your firm. In other words, different messaging needs to be developed for different audiences. All of your messages should be consistent with your positioning, but they may focus on different benefits and overcoming different objections.
- Define and refine your service offerings. Often overlooked in the planning process, your service offerings can get stale. Evolving your services over time is how you develop and hone a competitive advantage.
As clients’ needs change, you may want to create entirely new services to address those needs. Your research may uncover issues clients are not even aware of yet, such as an impending regulatory change, suggesting a range of possible service offerings. Or you might change or automate part of your process to deliver more value at a lower cost with higher margins.
Whatever these service changes turn out to be, they should be driven by your business analysis and your research into clients and competitors.
- Identify the marketing techniques you will be using. This starts with understanding your target audiences and how they consume information. Once you gain insight into how, where, and when your prospects are looking for information about services like yours, you can identify and exploit their preferred channels. It’s all about making your expertise more tangible and visible to your target audience. We call this Visible Expertise.
Achieving high-level visibility requires a balance of marketing efforts — our research has shown that a 50/50 blend of offline (traditional) and online (digital) techniques work best.
Examples of offline marketing:
- Print Publications
- Direct Mail
- Cold Calls
- Print Advertising
- Associations/Trade Shows
Examples of online marketing:
- Social Media
- Blogs/Online Publications
- Online Advertising
- Groups/Online Conferences
In addition to balancing your marketing techniques, be sure to create content for all levels of the sales funnel — to attract prospects, engage them and turn them into clients. To keep things as efficient as possible, plan to use content in multiple ways. For example, a webinar could be repurposed as blog posts, guest articles, and a conference presentation.
- Identify the new tools, skills, and infrastructure you will need. New techniques need new tools and infrastructure. It’s time to add any new ones you may need or revise those that aren’t up to date. Here are some of the most common tools:
- Website – Modern marketing begins with your website. Your strategy should tell you if a new website is needed or if adjusting your current messaging or functionality will be sufficient.
- Marketing Collateral – You may need to revise your marketing collateral to reflect your new positioning and competitive advantage. Common examples of collateral include brochures, firm overview decks, one-sheet service descriptions, and tradeshow materials.
- Marketing Automation – Software is making it easier and easier to automate your marketing infrastructure. In fact, marketing automation tools can be a game-changer and essential to building a competitive edge.
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – Online search has transformed marketing. Today, every firm that conducts content marketing needs a solid grasp of SEO fundamentals — from keyword research to on-site and off-site optimization.
- Social Media – Adding or upgrading your firm’s social media profiles is often required. And don’t forget to update the profiles of your subject matter experts.
- Video – Common ways to use video include firm overviews, practice overviews, case stories, blog posts, and educational presentations. If your subject matter experts have limited time to devote to developing content, video may be an efficient way to use the time they have.
- Email – You’ll need a robust email service that allows you to track reader interactions and manage your list — it may even be built into your CRM or marketing automation software. Also, take a look at your email templates and decide if they need a refresh.
- Speaker Kits – If your strategy involves public speaking or partner marketing, you may also need to develop a speaker kit. A speaker kit provides everything an event planner might need to select one of your team members for a speaking event: a bio, professional photo, sample speaking topics, a list of past speaking engagements, and video clips.
- Proposal Templates – Proposals are often the last thing a prospect sees before selecting a firm, so make sure yours sends the right message. At the very least, make sure you’ve included language that conveys your new positioning and differentiators.
Don’t forget the skills you will need. Even the best strategy will accomplish little if you don’t fully implement it. Many leaders find it challenging to build a full marketing strategy with just the right balance — and it can be even more challenging to keep teams up-to-date on today’s ever-changing digital tools. The fastest-growing firms use more outside talent.
- Document your operational schedule and budget. This is where your strategy gets translated into specific actions that you will take over time. Your written plan should include specific timelines and deadlines so that you can measure your progress against it. Did a task happen as scheduled? Did it produce the expected results? These results will become the input for the next round of marketing planning.
You will need two key documents, a marketing calendar, and a marketing budget. The marketing calendar should include every tactic you will be using to implement your plan. It can cover the upcoming quarter or even the entire year. Begin by entering any events you know about, such as annual conferences and speaking events. Include every regularly scheduled blog posts, emails, tradeshows, webinars — everything in your plan. Recognize that you may need to adjust your calendar regularly, possibly as often as weekly. The purpose is to build consistency and predictability. Leave room for last-minute changes — but don’t get too far away from your plan and budget.
To build a budget, start with the tools and infrastructure we just mentioned. For recurring elements such as advertising, estimate the cost for a single instance then multiply by the frequency. Use benchmarks when available, and don’t forget to allow for contingencies, typically 5-10% of the overall budget.
Examples of Marketing Planning
To help you understand the marketing planning process in more detail we will run through two real life examples. We’ve changed some of the identifying details, but in all other respects these capture the process in action.
The first is a small technology consulting firm that has grown through referrals from current and former clients. The second is a large accounting firm with multiple practice areas and industry verticals. We’ll walk through each of the steps in the planning process to demonstrate similarities and differences in how planning is done.
Step 1: Understand your business situation
Our small technology firm has reached the limits of their referral base. Growth has slowed and they are not sure how to revive it. Their clients are from multiple industry sectors with the highest concentration in manufacturing.
The large accounting firm has many audiences with little concentration in any industry. Their goal is to grow their advisory practice as the other service lines are becoming progressively more commoditized.
Step 2: Research your target audience
Our small consulting firm is faced with a decision. Who should their target client be? To answer this question they looked at their manufacturing clients and compared them to the other clients. They learned that the manufacturing segment was a better match with their experience and valued their services more highly because of their industry experience and understanding.
Our large accounting firm sampled their advisory clients, that were their highest business priority, as well as clients from other segments. They learned that their advisory services were indeed well regarded, but few clients were aware that they even offered this service.
Step 3: Position your brand
Other than “doing great work” our technology consulting firm had few differentiators. They made a decision to focus on their area of greatest strength and positioned themselves as specialists in working with manufacturing firms. They would accept work from existing non-manufacturing clients, but focus all their marketing push towards their chosen area of specialization.
Although somewhat aspirational, the accounting firm decided to position themselves as an advisory firm that also supports their clients with other services. Their business priority is to focus on selling advisory services to their existing tax clients.
Step 4: Define your service offerings
Our technology consulting firm realized that they would have to broaden their service offerings to the manufacturing community. Their research suggested that process automation would make the most sense for them. This required hiring a new staff member with that experience and skill set.
The accounting firm was already offering advisory services so did not feel a need to broaden their portfolio of services. What they did need was to crosstrain their existing tax professionals in pitching and offering some basic advisory services.
Step 5: Identify your marketing techniques
There are a wide variety of marketing techniques to choose from. The primary goal is to use the techniques that allow you to be found where your prospective clients are looking for business advice and insight. You will get this information from your research.
Our small consulting firm is focused on techniques that help them be found during web searches. This involves producing valuable content and making sure it is “findable”. This includes using search engine optimization (SEO) and paid digital advertising. They also supplement this with attending two key manufacturing conferences.
The large accounting firm is in a position to employ more techniques. They are focused on developing more valuable educational content around advisory services. These are a series of webinars on different issue areas where advisory services would be very valuable. The webinar series is accompanied by an executive guide which lays out how to make best use of advisory services. These will be targeted to existing tax clients and new prospects.
Step 6: Identify new tools, skills and infrastructure
The technology consulting firm needed several new tools. The website needed a total upgrade to reflect the updated focus. Marketing collateral and case studies needed an overhaul and new SEO and digital marketing campaigns needed to be set-up as well.
As we mentioned above, the accounting firm will need a training and skill development effort to allow for the needed cross selling of services. There will also need to be a new webinar infrastructure and staff training to allow for a smooth transition to this new marketing strategy. An updated advisory brochure is also planned for the near future.
Step 7: Document your schedule and budget
In this step we consider the timing of your marketing efforts (your marketing calendar) and their cost (your marketing budget). Consider both one time and ongoing costs separately.
Our small firm example layed out the one time costs and estimated the time and budget needed for ongoing marketing efforts. As a small firm their marketing expenses are relatively higher as a percentage of revenue than are typically found at a larger firm. Also, since this is their first real marketing plan, there is also more one time set-up expenses than would be found in an organization with an established function.
Our large advisory oriented accounting firm will go through the same process. Here there are a number of one time expenses to set up the infrastructure, train people and produce the needed content. After the initial materials are produced the implementation expenses are much reduced. Here again the marketing calendar lays out the schedule and the budget captures the costs.
These two examples show how professional services firms can produce specific actionable marketing plans using the seven step process. Now let’s turn our attention to some of the top marketing planning tips. These will help solve some common planning challenges.
Top Marketing Planning Tips
The planning process can be daunting. Here are a few tips to make it go more smoothly.
- Start with a review of how the world has changed since your last planning process. This will put needed changes into context and prepare your team to consider new ideas. For example, what marketing strategy has your competition put into place and what new competitors, if any, have appeared? Have your sales and revenue changed? Have you introduced new services? Any change in your marketing environment requires a change in marketing plans.
- Focus on the problems you solve and the value you can bring, not the services you provide. Remember, prospects will not care about you and what you have to offer until they realize the value you can provide them. That means focusing on what their problems are and how you can solve them. They’re not buying your services, they’re buying your solutions.
- Always lead with research. Knowledge is power. The more you know about your market, your clients, your prospects, and your competition, the more you can address them in your marketing plan. Research reduces risk. Invest in it and you won’t be sorry. But remember, professional services are different. Consumer-style research won’t work for B2B professional services.
- Expertise wins new clients and attracts top talent. Potential clients don’t want to hire amateurs — they want to hire the best talent their money can buy. By making your expertise visible and compelling, you’ll be ensuring prospects talk to you first. Also, the best employee talent wants to work for the top firms. If your firm is seen as an expert in its area, you’ll be sure to attract the best employees, too.
- Expertise is best conveyed by visibility and making complicated topics understandable. The more your firm’s experts are seen and heard — and the more prospects turn to them for a clear understanding of complex topics affecting them — the more new business you’ll attract.
We call these people Visible Experts®, and our research shows that buyers seek them out when they have a specific problem or challenge that requires a solution fast.
- Use marketing techniques that have been proven effective. Once again, a little homework goes a long way. As discussed earlier, find out how prospects like to receive their information and then include those channels in your marketing plan. Don’t waste time and money using channels that potential clients aren’t using. Above all, make sure your website is current, is easy to navigate, and contains the kind of valuable content that attracts the right target audience.
- Most marketing does not work because it is not correctly implemented. Even the best-laid plans can go awry if they are under-resourced, under-funded, and poorly implemented. Make sure you have the right plan in place and the resources and talent needed to successfully implement it. If you don’t have the ability to implement in-house, partner with an outside resource that does.
- Select fewer initiatives but fully resource the ones you do select. Focus on the quality of your efforts rather than delivering quantity. If you want to try a new technique, decide which old one you are going to stop (or pause). It’s far more effective to focus on a few highly targeted techniques than take a shotgun approach and implement a dozen half-baked marketing initiatives.
- Make sure you can attract the talent you will need. Employer brand is an often-overlooked but crucial element in any marketing effort. Professional services firms that can attract and retain the right talent have a major strategic advantage.
- Track each stage of the marketing pipeline. Do not measure short-term impacts only. Your marketing plan should align with your firm’s overall business development strategy. We’ve seen good results from marketing plans that contain specific milestones, offering a long-term roadmap to grow your firm.
The right marketing plan and tools give professional services firms the power to expand their horizons and reach audiences in distant markets. But your marketing plan has to be flexible. Online marketing gives you the power to recognize what is working and what isn’t, and you need to be prepared to make adjustments on the fly. But don’t discard traditional tactics that have been working for you just because they are old. Carefully consider every technique’s role and value in your marketing, then use research and your best judgment to select the best ones for your plan. Just don’t bite off too much, or you may drown in a sea of possibilities.
How Hinge Can Help
Hinge has developed a comprehensive program, The Visible Firm®, to deliver greater visibility, growth and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to attract new clients and attain new heights of profitability and growth.
- Keep pace with the marketplace, generate leads and build your reputation all at once: download our free Marketing Planning Guide.
- Equip yourself with the knowledge and tools you need to lead your firm through the rebranding process with Hinge’s Rebranding Guide.
- For more tips and insights specific for professional services firms, check out Hinge University.